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Sound, Piano, Landscape by Charlotte Wilson - ESSAY


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Sound, piano, landscape
by Charlotte Wilson

“It has been a long wait, but an amply rewarded one, for Henry Wong Doe's Landscape Preludes… Verdict: a fascinating range of New Zealand landscapes magnificently caught, in a recording that no Kiwi CD player should be without”
William Dart, NZ Herald

Here it is, the collection of New Zealand piano music that has attracted five stars from the NZ Herald and words such as ‘iconic’ in its very first week of release.


The pianist is Henry Wong Doe, now Assistant Professor at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, and a frequent visitor back to this country – he recently performed the Grieg concerto with the Auckland Philharmonia, and this is the first time the preludes have been recorded together as a suite. He spoke on Upbeat about the release and his initial reaction to the project: it is Stephen de Pledge who commissioned them and remains their best-known performer, and Henry was at first daunted by that, and grateful to Stephen for handing over what is very much ‘his baby’. Yet from Stephen’s point of view, he is only too glad for another pianist to be their champion, also. Henry, based in the USA, is already going on to perform them in recital and this recording for Rattle is a valuable endorsement of that. Also, as a teacher himself, Wong Doe includes them in the students’ repertoire at Indiana:

"There is a lot of value in these pieces in terms of introducing young students to 21st century repertoire, that it’s not daunting at all, because a lot of these pieces are actually quite accessible. So I’m going to hopefully tour this in the USA and also New Zealand, give more exposure to these works. I hope they can be in the same kind of repertoire as Chopin and Liszt…"

Stephen commissioned the first Landscape Preludes in 2003, while he was still living in the UK. The journey towards the complete cycle is a story of inspiration and determination that was five years in the making and has resulted in the first collection of 12 very individual voices, that at the same time share something very New Zealand. They are already speaking for us overseas: it is the first coherent collection of New Zealand piano music yet produced.

It began with a Wigmore Hall recital Stephen had in January, 2004. The original idea was to provide himself with programme fillers: small pieces, useful for a pianist, that could fill out a programme as individual pieces or be performed together as a cycle. Immediately, he thought of a cycle of 12 – twelve is a nice number, symmetrical, enough to provide plenty of variety within it as a set. And immediately he thought of New Zealand. As an expat and active figure in the contemporary music scene he found himself playing a lot of British and European music but nothing new from New Zealand: there was New Zealand music around –Edwin Carr, Jenny McLeod – but that was at least 30 years old by then. There was nothing ‘cutting edge’.

"It was the New Zealander coming out in me I suppose. I wanted to create an identity for New Zealand music overseas, a contemporary identity, and the Wigmore festival was putting my cards on the table – I wanted to say this is New Zealand music, this is where I come from, here I am."

The association with New Zealand suggested the name: Landscape Preludes. He got the support of Creative NZ and had a set of three commissioned for that first recital: Gillian Whitehead, Eve De Castro Robinson and Victoria Kelly – a triumvirate that he found ‘very satisfying, three different generations, nice’.  Whitehead’s Arapatiki, ‘the way of the flounder’, is the name for the sand flats that she looks over from her home at Harwood, outside Dunedin. It remains the first of the series and ‘has something to do with the advance and retreat of the tide’, as she puts it herself: a piece of impressionism that opens with the song of the korimako, the bellbird. Eve de Castro Robinson’s prelude this liquid drift of light is one of the more accessible to student pianists, a ‘glistening sound web’ in the words of William Dart; and Victoria Kelly’s Goodnight Kiwi is at once a nostalgic glance at the television that many of us grew up with and, simultaneously, a profoundly moving paean to her dying mother. (Michael Houstoun has recorded this piece, also, and speaks about it and the performer’s relation to emotion in music – very interesting! See the accompanying DVD on the Rattle release, Inland.)

Stephen’s Wigmore recital was received extremely well, and later that year he came back for a solo tour for Chamber Music New Zealand, driving himself the length and breadth of the country. He needed to select the rest of the composers: and Scilla Askew, then director of SOUNZ, put together massive piles of CDs for him that he listened to on the car stereo, blind, driving through the vast landscapes of the south island. That was how he chose the remaining nine.

"I started with Jack Body, because I knew and loved his music, but the rest of them I just chose in a kind of purposefully organised way. I didn’t have a huge agenda, my main concern was to have a good overview of New Zealand composers. All generations, all different styles and a good geographical spread. So I ended up with composers of all ages, from Jenny McLeod to Samuel Holloway who was still very young then: from Lyell Cresswell who’s in Edinburgh to Gillian Whitehead in Dunedin; and across genders as well, of course… the idea was to have a nice spread. In the end I had enough for two series. There were lots of people I had to leave off, and it was tempting when I finished it to start all over again."

There was no directive, apart from the fact that the piece had to be called a Landscape Prelude, and had to be three or four minutes in length. (Most, of course, went slightly over.) The next commissions were Lyell Cresswell’s Chiaroscuro – dazzling and dark, like its name – and Michael Norris’s Machine Noise: both of them on the difficult end of the spectrum, Norris’s piece in fact ‘impossible to play – but I think that was his aim’. Both of these he performed in the next CMNZ tour in 2006: Jack Body’s The Street Where I Live followed a year or so later, the humorous piece of the collection, incorporating Jack’s own description of his home. ‘I live in Durham Street. That’s third on the left, up Aro Street. As you drive up Aro Street, it’s a hairpin bend to the left and then almost immediately a sharp turn to the right. Up a drive. To number eight…’. The warmth of Jack’s description, as much as the beauty of the piano accompaniment, is impossible to resist. ‘I love it and audiences love it – it’s the kind of thing people remember. And it’s not too hard to play.’

In the meantime, however, the cycle had run into a hiccup. Funding had dried up. Stephen was just at the point of despair when rescue came in the form of Sir James Wallance, who simply fished out a chequebook and paid for all of the preludes that remained. Of these, Sam Holloway’s Terrain Vague and Dylan Lardelli ’s Reign are at the difficult end of the spectrum: ‘the very edge of virtuosity, I love it’. Of medium difficulty are Ross Harris ’s piece A Landscape With Too Few Lovers, inspired by one of the ‘Northland Panels’ by Colin McCahon: also Jenny McLeod’s Tone Clock Piece XVIII, one of the great series that she has been writing in the tone clock system since the early 2000s. And finally, the pieces more accessible to student pianists – Gareth Farr’s The Horizon From Owhiro Bay, ‘a musical representation of the view I see at twilight’, impressionist and shimmering, and the mischievous Sleeper, by John Psathas. Altogether the twelve form an extremely satisfying cycle:

"I was quite delighted there was such a big variety. It was great because I was a little bit nervous that I would get twelve slow very atmospheric dreamy pieces! It was tempting to give them a tempo or directive, fast or slow, for that reason. But I decided just to leave them to it, and it could not have worked out better. Some chose urban environments as their landscape, some physical, others mental, and some of the preludes are atmospheric of course but at the same time some people responded with more aggression as well – a couple of people really pushed the virtuosity."

Stephen first performed the complete set at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in Wellington, in 2008.  It was a somewhat stressful time for him, flying in from the UK completely jet-lagged, playing to the composers and giving the premiere within just two days. However, they were a triumph: rave reviews; and he has gone on to give over 20 performances since, in England, Scotland and France as well as in New Zealand. Not only that, the YouTube clips have meant that they have been taken up by pianists who would never otherwise have heard of them. SOUNZ filmed those very first performances at the festival, something Stephen pushed for, in the days when YouTube was little more than ‘a library of silly videos’. Now it is a significant educational resource: it was prescient of him. And the Landscape Preludes themselves prove, in this new recording, that they are a major set of works for the piano, one that can be accessible for students as well as professional virtuosos, and as William Dart has called them an ‘iconic’ collection for New Zealand.

"It’s very satisfying for me – that was what I was hoping for, that they would not be just my thing. I always wanted that they have a life of their own. And you can hear the New Zealand landscape, I think… there’s a lot of spaciousness in the writing, open intervals, bird song, tolling gong-like sounds: all those things that we think of as the New Zealand voice. I’m very proud of instigating them and I think they will go on."

Individual scores of the Landscape Preludes are published by Sam Holloway’s publishing house, Score, available through SOUNZ online.